MADRID: Karim Benzema has formed an essential part of Real Madrid's Champions League success, but there are doubts over whether his team can rely on him to extend their European domination this season.
The French striker's season has been regularly disrupted by injuries, and although Vinicius Junior is a deadly threat on the left, without Benzema, defences can focus on shutting down the Brazilian winger.
His future at Madrid is also unknown -- his contract expires in June and no public decision has been made over a renewal by player or club.
“Legends of this club have to stay at Madrid,“ said Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti, hoping the forward remains at his disposal next year.
Benzema missed Madrid's La Liga win over Espanyol on Saturday with an ankle issue but is expected to return to face Liverpool at the Santiago Bernabeu on Wednesday in a last 16 second leg clash.
The 35-year-old has been sidelined frequently, including with a thigh problem that saw him miss the World Cup with France.
“Something is wrong with Benzema, never in his entire career has he spent so much time in the injury room,“ complained Madrid newspaper AS last week, with Benzema out for the eighth time.
The forward has missed 34 percent of Madrid's games across all competitions this season, 14 matches in total, but has scored 18 in the 27 games he has played.
“These have been months of disappointment and enormous mystery regarding Karim,“ continued AS.
Captain and champion
Benzema has aged like a fine wine, playing his best football in his later years, freed up from playing on the fringes when Cristiano Ronaldo left Madrid in 2018, and becoming a top-class goalscorer.
Last season Benzema captained Madrid to Champions League glory, with the 1-0 win over Liverpool in the final securing a record 14th triumph.
Benzema was crucial in Madrid's wild run to Paris, scoring a remarkable 17-minute hat-trick in the last 16 to knock out Paris Saint-Germain.
The forward netted another hat-trick at Stamford Bridge in the quarter-finals to put Chelsea on the ropes and clinched the tie for his team with an extra-time winner in the second leg.
Manchester City suffered the same fate in the semi-finals, with Benzema netting twice at the Etihad in the first leg then slotting home a penalty to send Madrid through to the final, in extra-time again at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Benzema finished as the competition's top scorer, with 15 goals, and scored 44 in 46 games across all competitions last season, as Madrid lifted the double.
That magic has been sprinkled less liberally this season, although Liverpool had a taste at Anfield in the first leg as Madrid ran out 5-2 winners, with Benzema netting twice, his first goals in this season's edition.
It was a display of lethal finishing, leaving Jurgen Klopp's side shell-shocked after they had raced into a two-goal lead.
Benzema's brace took the forward to 88 in the Champions League in his career and he will hope to overtake Barcelona's Robert Lewandowski on 91 as the third top scorer of all time in the competition.
Both players are reaching the end of their storied careers and eyes are turning to the future.
With Benzema's destiny yet to be decided, PSG's Champions League exit last week proved an opportunity for some Spanish news outlets to rekindle links with Kylian Mbappe.
“If you want to win the Champions League, you already know...” ran Marca’s front page, next to a picture of the French striker.
Madrid fans are also excited about young prospect Alvaro Rodriguez, although it is too soon to expect the 18-year-old to make significant contributions on the European stage.
The club's hopes of retaining the trophy this season reside with Benzema, who causes worry each time he suffers a new setback.
Some believe he has been deliberately preserving himself for the team's biggest matches and the key European dates, and that it has affected his form.
“I see a very motivated Benzema, and I think you will see a different Benzema from now on, in 2023,“ said Ancelotti in late December, but so far it has not transpired.
For Madrid to succeed again in Europe and win a fifth Champions League trophy in 10 seasons, getting Benzema back to his best is of the utmost importance. - AFP